Background - We were first time big ship cruisers so we did not have anything to compare the experience to except a River Boat and they aren't even comparable! We are Americans living in Germany so are quite used to the "European" customs, trends, eating habits, etc.
Embarkation - We were unable to do the online check in. For a Saturday departure, the latest one can check in is by midnight on Thursday before. I thought it was within 24 hours before but I guess not so just beware. It did not affect the process for us though. We arrived at the Kiel train station around 1:40 and walked 10-15 minutes over to the ship. There were no lines and we buzzed right through the check in process. There are all sorts of booths in the port before getting on board that sell the drink packages, spa treatments, excursions, etc. , so it's not even really necessary to book ahead of time if you don't want to. Many staff members were lined throughout the hallways directing us where to go and how to get to our cabin.
Cabin - When we arrived on deck 14 in balcony room 14044 we were greeted with our cabin Steward and he took us in the room and showed us all we needed to know. Our information was in German (probably because we have a German last name and live in Germany!) but we needed English and from that point on it was correct! We thought the room was decent size. The bed was large (but a little worn) there was ample closet (lots of hangers) and drawer space and everything was clean. The bathroom was tight but there were two shelves on the wall and cupboards under the sink for storage. That was nice. We liked the location of the room, 4 cabins away to the door to the upper pool deck/jogging track. We didn't use the elevators, only once or twice! The complaint about this location is the noise. The constant opening and closing of the doors above and below as well as the deck 15 to deck 16 stairs being right above the room caused for great noise. There was some sort of constant rumbling below, it literally sounded like bowling balls being knocked down, and I could not figure out where it was coming from or what as the Spa was right below. If you are sensitive to noise I would not suggest this room or location. But having the balcony was fantastic for late night sunsets!
Ship - Huge! Never having been on a large before it was a bit easy to get lost but just look at the signs and arrows to find your way. It's beautiful, and clean - they are always polishing the brass!
Food & Dining - We had early sitting in La Fontane. It was not bad at all! We have nothing to compare it to but it definitely doesn't stick out in my mind as food that I will never forget. We are Americans living in Europe so the type of cuisine is familiar to us and we usually know what to expect. Portions are not huge, but that is not a bad thing! If you want more, ask for it or go to the buffet. It is an Italian cruise line so yes the pasta is very good! The desserts are not that good (ice cream is always good!), not too much of a selection. On the Italian themed night the dining room had BabaRum cake that didn't have any rum in it! The Baked Alaska on the last night was good though and the staff always puts on a fun parade through the dining room. Breakfast in the dining room is nice, in the buffet it is a zoo. Room service breakfast is limited but at least it's something for early morning port days. There is a good selection though so there is most likely you will find something you like to eat. We only had buffet lunch, again good selection, but a zoo. We ate dinner twice in the back section on the buffet towards the aft which is much less crowded, just try to avoid peak times if you go. It was not as fully stocked as the main line but the salad bar was just as good. We did not visit any of the Specialty Restaurants.
Drinks - This is the only bone of contention that there really was with the whole experience. 1st of all we did receive a booklet of 7 litres of bottled water, that was great. The "free" coffee in the buffet was absolutely disgusting. The coffee in the restaurant was much better but I preferred to have it brought room service and it was good. There is no coffee offered after dinner - but that's why there is a "coffee" package that can be purchased. The 24 hour ice/water machine was nice to have in the buffet and even though there was a sign that said not to refill bottles I still did. No iced tea there. We purchased the 14 draft beer + 7 bottles of water package for 69,00EUR and the 12 Mixed Drink package for 77,00EUR - both were fine deals except for the stupid paper booklets of coupons that had to be redeemed each time one was ordered. Why not simplify and credit our MSC Card?? Also, read your daily news because they will have a drink of the day and specials i.e. wine/vodka tastings, but all costs outside of prepaid packages have a 15% service charge tacked on. A draft beer is 4,90 + 15% and mixed drinks start at 6,25 + 15% when you have not prepurchased them - so do the math to see if it works for you.
Excursions - We were given a meeting location and time the night before our next morning excursion. During our itinerary we only did in Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. We walked into Copenhagen and that was fine for us. There were HoHo buses right at the port though. In Stockholm we chose the excursion because the port time was not that long and we didn't want to run the risk of problems with getting back to the ship. From others that did not do an excursion they did not have any troubles and enjoyed the day just fine. Tallinn is by far a waste of money to do an excursion. The ship docks right by the Old Town and the walk in is super easy and the town is equally as easy to walk around. SPB is without a doubt a port you have to take an excursion in. We took a ship excursion and were glad because we had a bunch of holdups throughout the day, therefore the ship HAD to wait for us. If we had booked through another operator we would not have had that same security. At least half of the ship excursions got back to the ship 90-120 minutes past their scheduled time. I didn't speak with anyone who had taken another operators tour but just be aware that the traffic is very bad in SPB and the tourism industry is still pretty new so I don't think they have it down to a science yet and with tours that are not scheduled with the ship there is no security that the ship will wait for you!
Service - there are about 3 passengers for every staff person so there are always plenty of people around. For the most part all speak English. The cabin steward was very efficient. Leaving a note for them in the room seemed to be the best way of communication if something was needed - not calling reception - that didn't seem to work! In the bars, it is NEVER a problem to get a drink as there are many servers there for you. Our main waitress, Elaina, was fabulous in La Fontane. Breakfast service in La Fontane seemed to be a bit slow on the 2 mornings we utilized it-just better to leave a carafe of coffee on the table!
Activities - There were always plenty of activities scheduled throughout the day, dance & Italian lessons, arts and crafts, trivia games, cocktail & food demos, aerobics & stretching all for free. It's fun to observe if partaking is not your thing. Bingo is fun but of course at a cost and in 5 languages!
Nightly Entertainment - The shows were great in the theatre every night. The artists inluded dancers, acrobatic type performers, singers and they all performed throughout the week. Poesia is catering to 5 or more different languages so the themes each night included the dance team which is universal enjoyment. Sometimes the singers would sing songs in English sometimes not. There were also Opera singers, it was all wonderful. There was a team of 3 hip-hop dancers that came out the first night in tu-tu's - so funny - they were great, and their street dancing was really impressive. Overall we were impressed each night, only 1 out of 7 nights did we not go to the theatre!
Language barrier - Out of the 3000 or so passengers there were approximately 130 English speaking. Really no issue for us but be prepared to hear every announcement in Italian, French, Spanish, German and English! A great learning experience or a great annoyance - depends on the day :)
WiFi - Nada unless you want to pay 16,00EUR an hour I think. The Internet Cafe could be utilized free for the first 3 minutes but after that you had to pay and it was super slow!
Fitness Room - We really enjoyed this. It was never really busy, more so on at sea days, and there was ample space to get in quick vacation workouts. Free weights, a handful of resistance machines, aerobic/stretching area, bikes, treadmills, ellipticals all with a frontal view of the sea!
Disembarkation - This was quite seamless. We opted for the "Self-Assist" which meant we did NOT have to put our bags out by 1am the night before and we had priority off the ship. We had to lug everything around in the morning after 8am when we had to be out of the cabin but really no biggie unless you have a ton of luggage. We waited in one of the lounges until we were called off and then everything moved quickly through the customs line inside the port and then we hopped right on a bus outside that took us direct to the train station for free!